The Body Shop on the bustling British retail strip of New Bond Street in London is an oasis of calm.
Staffers give hand massages around the "story telling" table, customers peer at handmade notices on the Community Wall, where signatures for the Stop Sex Trafficking campaign are solicited.
A tall, ginger curly-top sales clerk with a thick Irish brogue describes a Community Fair Trade shea butter project in Ghana. Jars and pots of ointments and unguents are set up in stations to pump out streams of softly scented mandarin and coconut. Local teens putter about with pots of makeup.
The prototype for a new "experience based" the Body Shop appears to be going swimmingly.
Face cream is really just hope in a jar, and there are only so many ways to peddle it. Between the white lab coat junk science and the newest miracle snake oil, consumers are so bombarded by the beauty-brand retail experience (and big box-ification thereof) that brand distinction suffers.
Enter the Pulse concept, a worldwide redesign of the Body Shops' 2,600 boutiques in more than 60 countries, an interactive retailing model with information and conversation areas designed to encourage customers to linger as they flow through the store.
"The way to gain customers and keep them coming back is to spend money on their experience in the store," says John Crombie, senior managing director for national retail services at Cushman & Wakefield.
The Body Shop is one retailer willing to spend the big bucks – although they won't divulge the budget for the project – and they are already seeing results. The research for this "design revolution," says Sophie Gasperment, executive chairwoman of the Body Shop International, has been going on since 2009 in more than 23 markets.
"We found that the average amount of time a consumer spends in our prototype stores has doubled, from an average of five minutes to more than 10. This shows a depth of interaction and communication we have witnessed. This is a brand with a lot of content."
This trend is called "entertailing," or experiential retailing and it can be seen at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store to the Build-a-Bear Workshop. Entertailing is about providing the customer with something to do – touch, read, listen, feel, play and, especially, stay. Activities provide a way to facilitate interaction with staff and thus the brand. To wit, signing your name on a petition is about becoming a part of something larger than a store.
It is also about customizing the experience, Mr. Crombie says, another megatrend in retail (both real world and online). From adding monograms to handbags to choosing your own swoosh stripe colour or the stitching on your jeans.
And it is about lifting everyone above the mall fray: Fashion clerks are now stylists, beauty staff are now consultants or artists. Elevating the staff and brand image elevates the customer who buys into it.
All of the Body Shop spaces in Canada are leased, which doesn't surprise Mr. Crombie. "Retailers spend substantially more money on leased premises, mostly because Cadillac Fairview and RioCan own the best spots."
The global shift to what the company is calling a "beauty revolution with heart," which includes a completely reworked online experience, began May 14 as staff retraining started.
The company is in effect returning to its roots, and looking to connect locally with the world. Thirty-five years ago in Britain, the Body Shop was an innovative beauty concept launched by social activist Anita Roddick. After her death in 2007, and the sale to L'Oreal, the Body Shop continued to grow according to Ms. Roddick's ground-breaking business model – she sought out Community Fair Trade partnerships around the globe, sourcing organic alcohol in Central America, coconut oil on remote Samoa, peppermint from English farm collectives, stationery from Nepal.
The projects support isolated communities, provide clean water and schools and give work to the most marginalized of women. But as competitors moved into the market – from Bath and Body Works with its similar look and feel to the war of the heavy hitters, Sephora versus Shoppers Drug Mart in the Canadian market – the socially conscious centre (and point of distinction) was still there, but not conveyed effectively or memorably to consumers.
(The Body Shop has never advertised; newly appointed spokeswoman Lily Cole, herself a passionate advocate for social justice, is the face of the brand but you won't see her appear in magazine advertisements on its behalf.) Instead the company went back to its grassroots and decided to communicate more directly with the consumer.
"Bigger isn't always better," Mr. Crombie says. "We had Sephora, a well-known international player. Shoppers Drug Mart responded to the incoming threat, beefing up the makeup department of their larger stores, routing traffic through them in the 17,000- or 18,000-square-foot stores."
It is all about "right-sizing" he says, and interacting with the community. "RONA hardware, for instance, has been customizing to the local market, being responsive to ethnicity."
That is precisely what Ms. Gasperment sees in terms of connecting locally. "The Pulse stores are a meeting place for conversation. We designed them to embrace, steer and engage a customer. Anita's mantra was 'get informed, get involved, get active.' We want a proper conversation."
Ms. Gasperment says that the Body Shop's simultaneous investment in the company's online presence will combine with the real world renovations to strengthen each other. "We are a particularly global brand, we source and sell all over the world. This is about merging local conversations with global ones."
To encourage lingering, the chairs are low and clustered around activity tables. "We have blended clean crisp and high-tech stark white tabletops with the idea of being rooted in nature's best, so woods and artisanal style."
There is an almost crafty science-fair-like feel to the information areas dedicated to conveying CFT projects around the globe, a mix of crisp and handcraft.
In Canada, the store sizes are changing. "We're looking at ways to optimize our space so some may be larger, and some will have a more intimate environment," says Paul Kimberley, managing director for the Body Shop's America's Zone. "It's a welcoming environment, a playful environment," he says. "Customers will smell, feel and experience our products like never before."
Taking the Pulse
The number of The Body Shop boutiques in Canada
The number of Pulse concept stores to open in Canada by the end of this year.
So far, new concept stores have opened in Mapleview Centre, in Burlington, Ont., Masonville Place in London and Rideau Centre in Ottawa.
In Toronto, the Bloor Street and Eaton Centre locations are set to receive the new design this year.